Kevin Gorman: Browns add insult to injuries in beating Steelers
If Mason Rudolph throwing passes to Johnny Holton and Tevin Jones in the second half wasn’t a bad enough sign for the Pittsburgh Steelers, there was an even more ominous statistic.
The Cleveland Browns caught more of Rudolph’s passes than those two combined, intercepting the Steelers quarterback four times on their way to a 21-7 victory Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Steelers were decimated by injuries and demoralized by turnovers in this defeat, one that ended their four-game winning streak and dropped them out of wild-card playoff positioning.
First, running back James Conner aggravated his shoulder injury. The Steelers also lost receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson to concussions after both absorbed helmet-to-helmet hits. Additionally, the Steelers lost defensive depth when cornerback Artie Burns (knee) and outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi (concussion) were injured on special teams.
Jones and Holton combined for three catches for 42 yards, the first contributions of the season for a pair of players promoted from the practice squad.
The Browns picked on Rudolph by picking him off, including a fourth-quarter interception that clinched their first victory over the Steelers since 2014.
The Steelers went down swinging in the final seconds after Myles Garrett pulled Rudolph’s helmet off and hit him with it, and a melee ensued.
1. Going yawn: Odell Beckham Jr. showed he has the ability to go deep and has a long memory.
The Browns receiver didn’t forget Mike Tomlin’s interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler this past summer, when Tomlin mimicked a yawn when asked about Beckham coming to the AFC North through a trade.
When Beckham caught a long pass from Mayfield that initially was signaled a 43-yard touchdown, he turned toward Tomlin and made the same yawning motion with his hand.
Tomlin got some revenge when he challenged the spot, and a review showed Beckham was down at the 1. Tomlin won the reversal to negate the touchdown, but the Browns scored on Baker Mayfield’s 1-yard run for a 7-0 lead.
2. Thanks for nothing: It’s no stretch to say Browns safety Morgan Burnett made more plays in one half against the Steelers than he did in one season for them.
In 11 games with the Steelers last season, including two starts, Burnett had 30 tackles, six pass breakups and two quarterback hits. He didn’t have an interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery.
In the first half alone, Burnett had five tackles (three solo), a tackle for loss, two pass breakups and an interception. He was involved in the hit that left Smith-Schuster concussed, dropped Trey Edmunds for a 1-yard loss on a third-and-1 run at the Browns 45 and picked off a pass late in the second quarter.
The Steelers ran a flea flicker that saw Rudolph look deep for Jones, but the pass was underthrown, and cornerback Denzel Ward tipped it into the hands of Burnett, who returned it 43 yards to the Steelers’ 30.
Burnett, however, later injured his Achilles tendon and was ruled out for the remainder of the game.
Now that’s the Burnett we knew in Pittsburgh.
3. Bad to worse: The Steelers missed a chance to score when holder Jordan Berry bobbled the snap on Chris Boswell’s 44-yard field-goal attempt, which missed wide left.
They blew a second shot at getting on the scoreboard on the final drive of the first half, when a 22-yard pass to tight end Vance McDonald was followed by a 13-yard pass to Johnson to put the Steelers at Cleveland’s 28.
It took only three plays to implode.
Safety Juston Burris got a strip-sack of Rudolph for a 9-yard loss, and right tackle Matt Feiler recovered the fumble at the 42.
On second-and-24, Rudolph threw incomplete. On third down, defensive end Chad Thomas blew past Feiler to sack Rudolph for a 10-yard loss.
The Steelers, from their own 48, were forced to punt.
4. Follow the flag: The Steelers already were without Smith-Schuster when Browns safety Damarious Randall led with his helmet on a hit that left Johnson concussed.
Randall was ejected for the flagrant foul, but the Browns’ problems were only about to begin.
Rudolph’s pass intended for McDonald fell short on third-and-6, but Burris was called for illegal contact, giving the Steelers a first down, and Browns cornerback Greedy Williams was called for pass interference on a deep ball to Holton, giving the Steelers first-and-goal at the 3.
Rudolph threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Samuels to complete the five-play, 87-yard drive.
Thanks to the Browns’ three penalties for 58 yards.
5. Secret weapon: The Browns’ best weapon wasn’t Mayfield or Beckham or Jarvis Landry.
Punter Jamie Gillan shined in averaging 48.3 yards on seven punts, including a long of 59 yards and landing three inside the Steelers 20.
Cameron Sutton replaced Johnson on punt returns and made an ill-advised decision to field one at the 12. On the next punt, Sutton let the ball bounce, and the Browns downed it at the Steelers 9.
On the next play, Rudolph’s pass intended for James Washington was intercepted by Schobert. That set up an 8-yard touchdown pass from Mayfield to tight end Stephen Carlson, who reached over Mark Barron to make the catch.
That was the final insult to a game filled with injuries.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .